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April 26, 2002

++ The Antipop Consortium Live Experience

++ There's nothing like witnessing a group in control of its domain. On the night of Monday, April 22, Warp recording artists Antipop Consortium delivered a powerhouse set that had San Francisco's Justice League nightclub solidly under their command. Despite the half-capacity crowd, the Antipop trio — Mr. Ball Beans, Priest and M. Sayyid — prowled the stage, worked the audience and tweaked their noisemakers to effect a total sonic lockdown on the music hall.

In a way, the timing was a shame: Arrhythmia, the New York group's debut album for England's essential electronic imprint Warp, has only just hit the streets, and while the label's followers and underground hip-hop heads alike are well acquainted with the crew's work, their wave is just now beginning to crest. Another month or so of press, and the crowd might easily have doubled.

At the risk of waxing hyperbolic, it felt a bit like history in the making (indeed, Antipop have already toured as Radiohead's support act, playing 15,000-seat venues). After all, Arrhythmia is one of the most striking hip-hop records of the last few years. Almost totally devoid of samples, it plays the trio's tightly wound wordplay off sprawling electronic productions that owe as much to Can as they do the Cold Crush Brothers. The creation of Beans, Priest, M. Sayyid and the producer Earl Blaize, Arrhythmia rides on squirrelly analog synth leads, disco compression, and rhythms that easily beat down boom-bip boredom. And that's not even to mention the record's centrifugal lyricism, spinning ideas and syllables outward in a spray of free associations — a style that can be traced all the way back to the rappers' involvement in New York's poetry scene in the 1990s.

++ From the moment they rolled up to the Justice League, you knew that Antipop Consortium meant business. They came by van, not limo or tour bus — but no matter, because the way Mr. Ball Beans strode lazily up the sidewalk and through the club's front doors, the man was all rock star. A camo-covered veep with a lazy swagger, he took in the scene from beneath his slouchy marksman's cap and trademark sunglasses.

Backstage, Beans, Priest and M. Sayyid were low-key, cracking Coronas from the dressing-room cooler and swapping gossip with SF heads. Local MC Azeem, sweaty from his opening slot, walked in the room, plopped down in an empty chair and sparked up a spliff. With DJ Zeph winding down outside, Priest and Sayyid took the last drags on their cigarettes and the trio hit the stage.

On vinyl, Antipop distinguish themselves as much for their inventive sonics as their interleaved lyricism; their stage show maintained this will to sound by opening with a crescendo of synthesizer growl and grinding beats. The trio leaned over a cluster of gear: Beans stood with his back to the audience, twiddling knobs; Priest looked out from behind his laptop; M. Sayyid attacked his Akai MPC drum machine with both hands, bashing out lurching rolls with his fingertips, drawing back to rub his hands like a madman, then leaning forward to beat at the pads again.

Sayyid had used this same technique — creating beats on the fly — when they played SF's Bottom of the Hill last fall, and it was what I was most looking forward to. At that gig, Priest stood behind a bank of keyboards, Beans occasionally stabbed at a Rhodes (if memory serves me), and Sayyid seemed perpetually to be tapping at the MPC, crafting all their beats in real time. This time, there were more "spacebar tracks" — backing tracks on the laptop that Priest would simply let run while the trio rapped — but they balanced those with live interludes.

++ Arrhythmia, the group's new full-length, is far subtler than even most underground hip-hop; strikingly, many of the nuances — like the bouncing-ball rhythms of "Ping Pong" — came across in the live set. Elsewhere, the group compensated by erecting a wall of sound. There's hardly anything resembling a bass line on Arrhythmia, only a succession of low-end pedal tones; live, these swelled into gut-rumbling low pressure fronts.

The drawback to live hip-hop is the difficulty of actually hearing the words, but the three lyricists compensated by emphasizing the purely musical aspects of their delivery. Their ensemble work is divided into three distinct spheres: Priest's voice is low, lazy and hoarse; Sayyid's ambles easily through a clear, muscular tenor range; Beans falls somewhere between the two, spitting in a jerky monotone that trips between metrical rigidity and syncopated swing. Even when no more than a handful of words rose above the noise, their barrel-chested, battle-tested rhymes spooled out with all the color and heft of a horn solo.

But the key to Antipop's live show is their presence. Priest may have played it cool behind his laptop, but Sayyid was an unstoppable force. From the moment he first rubbed his hands together like a canny firestarter on the tundra, Sayyid was lumbering across the stage, charting its coordinates and topography, registering every board and mic cord as he sauntered back and forth, his huge hands fanning like windmills. Wearing a rugby shirt thrown over his shoulders like a shawl and a bandanna tied around his forehead, the MC made for a baggy-assed Bigfoot in a streetwise disguise. Crouching, lumbering, twisting up his incredibly lanky frame, the man might have come straight out of Ovid's "Metamorphoses," turning to bear, then jellyfish, then jaguar.

Beans, on the other hand, played it cool. His nostrils flared beneath his enormous glasses, but the rest of him stayed calm: when he sat out a verse, he did it literally, demurely crossing his legs. But as the show proceeded he fed off the energy, finally losing the camouflage jacket and ripping off the cap to reveal a shiny, bald pate interrupted by a wiry half-mohawk running down the back of his head. By that point he was curled like a human comma, gripping his microphone Henry Rollins-style, all elbow and flex, and against Priest's gravelly monotone, flat and dry as an electric blanket, Beans' raps sounded more like dancehall chatter.

++ And so they rocked it for an hour or so, teasing the crowd with false endings and then staying on stage to reel off yet another song. Towards the end the beats fell away and the trio dug into knotty acapellas that whipped the crowd into a frenzy — "24 karats of panic," as Sayyid rhymed.

They love this shit, these three men and their machines, and it shows. A handful of songs before their finale, the b-boy videos end and they're left in front of a blue screen, an unconscious echo of the video production technique used to swap virtual backgrounds behind actors. It's a fitting metaphor. Antipop Consortium, using only beats and rhymes, conjured fantastic landscapes and carved out a parallel world in the darkened confines of the club, inviting all to explore their otherworldly creations. You couldn't have asked for better architects, or better tour guides.


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